Saturday, December 21, 2013

Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Published: Lippincott (1959), Easton Press (1994), Gollancz(2013)
Awards Won: Hugo Award

The Book:

“The Flame Deluge has wrecked the world, and the following anti-knowledge cultural backlash has eliminated most of what remained of the previous civilization.  However, out in the desert, in the Monastery of the Blessed Leibowitz, monks are patiently spending their lives to preserve the knowledge of the earlier age, regardless of how little they understand it.

In a story spanning many years, A Canticle for Leibowitz follows the events surrounding the Albertian Order of Leibowitz—through the dark ages that follow nuclear war, through the re-awakening of scientific thought, and through the rest of the destructive cycle of human civilization.” ~Allie

A Canticle for Leibowitz is the only novel Walter M. Miller, Jr. published in his lifetime, though a sequel (Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman) was completed and published posthumously. 

My Thoughts:

Like a few of the early Hugo winners I’ve been reading lately, A Canticle for Leibowitz, was originally published as three shorter works and then reconstructed into a novel. In this case, the three stories were the stories of three separate eras of post-nuclear-disaster Earth: a dark age, a scientific renaissance, and a new nuclear age.  Each section is a complete story, but the sections are connected by their themes and common history.  I haven’t read the stories in their original short forms, but I have read that they were extensively reworked to make a stronger whole.  I feel that the final product is a really impressive work of long fiction, and that the three stories fit together well in service of a larger, more complex story.

Each of the three stories that comprised the novel took place in a different era and concerned a different cast of characters.  I think that the novel was pretty successful in relating the society of each era, and the cast of characters that reflected the values of that society. The monastery is one constant throughout the centuries, as is an apparently immortal Jewish character, Benjamin, a reference to a myth that might be offensive to some readers.  However, I enjoyed following the stories of Benjamin and the various casts, which included abbots, monks, scientists and others.  Many of the characters were engaging as individuals, and they were often also interesting in terms of the points the author was using their existence, thoughts, and actions to make.

One thing that really surprised me was how the story could run the gamut from very serious to quite funny, without feeling uneven in tone. The content seems quite depressing—it starts with a bleak post-apocalyptic future, and shows a humanity that is doomed to repeat the same mistakes.  There’s also quite a lot of death and tragedy within the stories of individual characters.  However, the darkness of the story is counterbalanced by an occasional lightness and humor. For instance, the first protagonist, a monk-to-be named Francis, was both endearing and comical in his over-earnestness and simple piety.  He considered an ancient shopping list a holy relic, and believed a “fallout” was a kind of demon that had once attacked humanity. I appreciated how these little touches of humor throughout the novel helped to keep the story from feeling too heavy or bleak.       

In addition to being entertaining, A Canticle for Leibowitz was also a complex book, full of many interesting ideas and hidden meanings to uncover. The novel is heavily Catholic, so I have probably missed some allusions or symbols, along with missing some of the meaning of the Latin phrases. However, I really enjoyed the complexity of the representation of religion in the story.  For instance, there was some interesting discussion of the relationship between science and religion, and consideration of the effect of prosperity and its lack on human attitudes.  In terms of the religious symbolism, the last section ended up a little too weird for my tastes, and I’m not sure I ultimately agree with some of the arguments of the novel. Altogether, I think this is a novel that rewards an attentive reader, and would probably benefit from being read more than once.

 My Rating: 4.5/5

A Canticle for Leibowitz follows the development of human civilization after a nuclear war, through a new cycle of growth and destruction.  The three sections of the novel relate three separate stories that are connected through the Monastery and themes of the novel.  Each story has a distinct set of characters that represent their respective eras.  I enjoyed the religious and philosophical ideas, though I may have missed some points due to my outsider’s view of Catholicism.  The seriousness of the story was also pleasantly counterbalanced by light touches of humor.  Overall, A Canticle for Leibowitz delivers a story that is both thoughtful and entertaining, and I can see why this one is considered a classic!      


  1. I really need to reread this one. I read it maybe five years ago? the only thing I really remember is the post apocalyptic feel, and that it was three short novels all mashed together.

    1. Yeah, those are probably some of the most distinguishing features! I was actually surprised by how much I enjoyed this one; it just struck a chord with me.

  2. Wikipedia has a page with most of the Latin translations. I discovered it after my second reading, then used it on my most recent reading. Most of it is from the old Tridentine (pre-Vatican II) Mass and other rituals. Being a cradle Catholic, it added some color to the surrounding story. If you read it again and reference the page, I'd be interested if you think it added anything to the story. Great review!

    1. Thanks for pointing me to that! If I get a chance to re-read with the Latin, I'll add an update here.

  3. This has become a favorite of mine over time. Glad you liked it!